Tester visits Malmstrom, says base can withstand a BRAC round and supports infrastructure upgrades

Sen. Jon Tester visited Malmstrom Air Force Base last week to talk with officials about their needs and challenges since appropriation season is approaching.

During the visit, Tester flew with Malmstrom commander Col. Ron Allen to a missile alert facility, where security forces, missile crew officers and support airmen live when they’re in the field. To get there, airmen with the 40th Helicopter Squadron took Tester and Allen for a ride in the UH-1N Huey helicopter, an aircraft Tester is pushing the Air Force to replace by 2020-2021.

This year’s proposed budget for the Air Force includes funds to support “the rapid recapitalization” of the helicopters to “enhance the security provided to the ICBM inventory.”

Bids to replace the Huey are due this month.

Final RFP issued in search for Huey replacement, including those at Malmstrom

Tester said the visit was an opportunity to see the missile complex and facilities first hand and talk to the officers posted there.

Among the major changes coming to Malmstrom in the near future are the new helicopters and the tactical response force alert facility that will co-locate the helicopter and security forces airmen in the same facility. The government has issued a solicitation looking for businesses interested and capable of building the new facility to help draft the actual project bid.

Other major projects on the horizon include a new weapons storage area at Malmstrom. In July, a presolicitation was posted for the project seeking contractors capable of providing engineering and architecture services for the specialized facility. According to the presolicitation, the project is slated for fiscal year 2019 military construction funds.

Tester said Malmstrom plays a vital role in nuclear deterrence and national security but that the base infrastructure is aging and in need of repair. That includes upgrading missile alert facilities, Tester said.

Two contracts were recently awarded for upgrades at Malmstrom MAFs. One contract for water wells at four MAFs was awarded to Wadsworth Builders for $1.3 million and the other to Liberty Electric for electrical upgrades at all 15 MAFs for $1.5 million.

The timeline for the new ground based strategic deterrent, or GBSD, meant to replace the current Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile system is still on schedule, Tester said.

Last fall, three companies submitted bids for the technology-maturation and risk reduction phase. The Air Force could award up to two contracts for that phase and is due to award the contract during this quarter of fiscal year 2017, according to the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center. The federal fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

After selecting a single bidder from the field of Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman Corp., the Air Force has said the new missile system will be deployed by the late 2020s. The new system is expected to last at least until 2075.

In recent years, there’s been pushback concerning the cost of nuclear modernization, but military leaders have continued to stress the importance of ensuring the nuclear deterrent remains, especially as North Korea continues to test its own ICBMs and threaten U.S. interests.

Air Force conducts last ICBM test launch of the year

In June, Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said that he’s regularly asked about the cost of nuclear modernization and suggested the question should instead be “how can you afford not to afford to modernize the triad?”

Hyten said ICBMs are the most responsive element of the triad. Because the 400 ICBMs are spread across three missile bases in Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota, it creates a targeting problem for adversaries.

Hyten said that the cost to modernize the entire triad, which includes ICBMs, bombers and submarines, is about six percent of the defense budget.

In April, Hyten told Congress that many adversaries have significantly modernized and continue to upgrade their nuclear forces, but that nearly all elements of the U.S. nuclear triad are operating beyond their designed service life.

“Any recapitalization program delays will further diminish these capabilities and effect our ability to execute our mission,” Hyten said in April.

Current ICBM launch systems, and the command and control physical infrastructure in use today became operational with the Minuteman I system in the 1960s.

Some components and subsystems have been upgraded since, including the transition to the Minuteman III configuration in the 1970s, but most of the fundamental infrastructure is original and has supported more than 50 years of continuous operation, according to Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center.

The flight systems currently in use were fielded in the late 1990s and early 2000s with an intended 20-year lifespan. The Minuteman III system is expected to operate through 2030.

While there is a need for modernization, the military has also been asking for a base realignment and closure, or BRAC, round.

Asked his thoughts on BRAC, Tester said it “needs to be done.”

He said it makes sense to eliminate excess military facilities, but believes Malmstrom can withstand BRAC. Tester said that tough the base has challenges, it continues to be useful to national defense.

 

Tester said he and the congressional delegation are continually working with the military to find new missions for Malsmtrom, whether they be cyber or bomber aircraft.

The Air Force is currently developing the B-21 bomber as a stealth aircraft capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Some have suggested that the new bomber could be based at Malmstrom, giving new life to the deactivacted runway, but the basing process is lengthy and none of Montana’s congressional delegation have said publicly that they are actively pursuing that possibility.

Tester said that there shouldn’t be any surprises on the horizon when it comes to Malmstrom and nuclear modernization as many of these projects have been in the works for years.

The challenge, he said, is to look toward the future and “what do we do 5, 10, 15 years from now.”